We’ve always been good students of US History and the presidents who have played a defining role in it. If you think back to your own days in high school classrooms there’s a good chance that, like us, there are a few presidents that immediately come to mind: the Founding Fathers who shaped the earliest days of the country. Their stories are important to learn about for many reasons, but a little deeper in the history books are the years guided by some of the less recognizable names to hold the office. If you want to bring history to life, one of the best ways to do that is to seek out tours of presidential libraries and houses, which have become our go-to places to learn more about our nation’s leadership.
Luckily for us, our home state of Virginia is known as “The Mother of Presidents” because it has served as the birthplace for more former US presidents than any other state. We have enjoyed many day trips to visit presidential homes, birthplaces, and museums over the years, and we’re excited to highlight some of our favorite sites dedicated to Virginia presidents around the state—both well-known and lesser-known. Visiting these houses can be a great way to learn about those who would go on to lead our country, but it can also be a great way to learn about what life was like at various points in our nation’s history.
If you’re a presidential history geek like us, or if you’re interested in learning more about the early days of our country, consider adding these houses for Virginia Presidents to your list of things to see when you visit the Old Dominion state.
1st President of the USA (1789 – 1797)Any list of United States presidents should start with the man who is considered to be the “Father of his Country” and not only served as the first president of the USA but also helped establish many precedents for how the office should be perceived and behave. Prior to becoming president, Washington played a major role in the Revolutionary War, the French and Indian War, and earlier conflicts. Given his stature in the early days of the country, it should come as no surprise that the capital city of the United States (and later, an actual state in addition to numerous towns and counties around the USA) would bear his name.
George Washington grew up in Virginia, and his Mount Vernon estate near Alexandria is a short drive from Washington, DC. Today, it is a beautifully preserved home where you can explore both the inside of the buildings on guided tours as well as the rest of the property, which often hosts weekend events, arts and crafts, and other opportunities to learn about life when the nation was born. As an added bonus, be sure to check out the George Washington Birthplace Monument just south of Mount Vernon in Colonial Beach.
Fun fact: During his time at Mount Vernon, George Washington had one of the largest distilleries in the United States, producing almost 11,000 gallons of whiskey in 1799. He also was fond of showcasing a live camel at his home during the winter holidays, and the tradition continues to this day, where every December visitors can say hi to a live Christmas camel!
3rd President of the USA (1801 – 1809)Thomas Jefferson is one of our favorite presidents, and he had an enormous impact as a founding father of the United States. In addition to being the third president of the USA, Jefferson was also the author of the Declaration of Independence, responsible for the Louisiana Purchase (which doubled the size of the USA’s territory), commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and he was the country’s first wine enthusiast. Thomas Jefferson also founded the University of Virginia and served as Vice President and Governor of Virginia before his time as president.
Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, is located in Charlottesville, and it’s also featured on the back of the US 5¢ Nickel. He loved the property, once writing in a letter, “All my wishes end, where I hope my days will end, at Monticello.” You can visit the home for tours of the interior and exterior of the house, and it has one of the best gift shops we’ve seen if you like colonial souvenirs. We especially enjoyed learning about Jefferson’s passion for books and seeing some of the home’s conveniences that were born of his own invention (including a polygraph designed to make exact copies of his correspondence!).
Another lesser-known house for the Virginia Presidents associated with Thomas Jefferson is Poplar Forest, which is located near Lynchburg. Poplar Forest is strikingly similar to Monticello from a design perspective, and it was used as a private retreat or vacation home for Jefferson and his family. The Tuckahoe Plantation in Richmond is also an historic site for Jefferson, as it’s a place where he spent a portion of his childhood; if you’re touring locations for the Virginia presidents, it’s worth a stop to explore!
4th President of the USA (1809 – 1817)James Madison, known as the “Father of the Constitution” for his role authoring the document, was the fourth President of the USA and served during the tumultuous years that coincided with the War of 1812. One of Madison’s closest friends was Thomas Jefferson, and the two were known to frequently visit each other in their homes, which are about 28 miles apart—practically making them neighbors back in the late 1700s when the distance between properties was significantly greater than what most of us enjoy these days.
Today, you can tour James Madison’s Montpelier estate in Orange County, which includes a room where it’s believed Madison spent a substantial amount of time writing the earliest drafts of the constitution. We have found the guided tours to be particularly interesting during our own visits with friends and family. History enthusiasts can also visit another important site at Belle Grove in Port Conway, Virginia, so see the location where James Madison was born. Be sure to look for the state historic marker near the location when you visit.
5th President of the USA (1817 – 1825)James Monroe has always felt like one of the more forgotten two-term presidents to us. His term started after the War of 1812, which later became known as the “Era of Good Feelings” for it’s relative calm and desire for national unity. Most famous for the Monroe Doctrine, the fifth President of the United States was also the last of the so-called “Virginia Dynasty,” which boasts four of the first five presidents as Virginia residents.
There are a few locations around the state that honor the Virginia President, including Oak Hill in Aldie, which is privately owned and not open to the public; Monroe spent time at Oak Hill after his term as President. James Monroe’s most well-known home is Highland (formerly Ash Lawn Highland) in Charlottesville, which is open to the public for tours. It’s also three miles from Jefferson’s Monticello (literally right around the corner!), so you can easily visit both in the same day. If you’re looking for a museum or if you’re interested in artifacts related to Virginia presidents, be sure to visit the old Law Office in Fredericksburg, which is now an official museum and library for James Monroe. Finally, you can also visit a monument in Colonial Beach that marks the birthplace of James Monroe. Located right off state route 205, which is also known as James Monroe Highway, it’s a lesser-known site dedicated to the founding father but it’s worth a stop on your journey to learn about the Virginia presidents.
William Henry Harrison
9th President of the USA (1841)Before becoming the 9th president of the USA, William Henry Harrison had a storied career in the military, and he’s also the grandfather of the 23rd president of the United States- Benjamin Harrison. So it’s especially unfortunate that William Henry Harrison is probably most known as the president who died just 31 days into his term; he became ill after giving a long inaugural speech in poor weather. It’s both ironic and sad that he was said to have given a long speech on purpose to demonstrate his vitality. His detractors used his age against him as he was the oldest man to become president at that time, so he wanted to prove he had the energy to get through a long speech. While he did deliver the full speech, it came with unexpected and disastrous consequences, ultimately leading to his death.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Virginia Presidents, you can visit William Henry Harrison’s Berkeley Plantation home in Charles City and tour the grounds. The location has been used in multiple TV shows and movies like 2019’s Harriet; they even have a permanent exhibit on-site where visitors can see the filming locations for the movie. Another fun fact: the very first Thanksgiving took place at William Henry Harrison’s Berkeley Plantation, long before his birth. While the pilgrims of New England are often credited with having the first Thanksgiving in 1621, it was actually at Berkeley Plantation a few years earlier (in 1619) where the first English speaking Thanksgiving took place!
More Information: Berkeley Plantation
10th President of the USA (1841 – 1845)This former President may not be as well-known as some of his Virginian counterparts, but he does have the distinction of being the first Vice President to rise to the office of President upon the death of a sitting President. Tyler served as Vice President to fellow Virginian William Henry Harrison, and the houses for the two men are actually just 10 miles from each other. When William Henry Harrison died, Tyler fought to ensure that the sitting Vice President should be allowed to rise to the presidency and assume the office with full powers, rather than act as a placeholder until the term ends, which some had argued. Tyler won the battle, but the debate created more than a few enemies for the Virginia President, and some of his political rivals soon dubbed him “His Accidency” for the path he took to become the 10th president of the United States. Shockingly, after John Tyler’s term ended, he sided with the Confederacy in the lead-up to the Civil War and was even elected to the Confederate House of Representatives before his death.
Today, the public can visit John Tyler’s Sherwood Forest Plantation located in Charles City to learn more about him. Tours of Sherwood Forest Plantation need to be arranged in advance since the estate is still privately owned by the family. In fact, the house has been owned by John Tyler’s family since 1842, and the current owner is actually his grandson—not his great great grandson, his grandson! John Tyler was born in 1790 and died in 1862; that is one surprising family tree!
More Information: Sherwood Forest Plantation
12th President of the USA (1849 – 1850)Another lesser-known figure among the Virginia Presidents is actually more commonly thought of as a Kentuckian because he spent the majority of his life in the neighboring state. However, the 12th president of the United States was actually born in Virginia, and the state even named a stretch of US Route 522 in his honor: Zachary Taylor Highway.
Zachary Taylor had a distinguished career as an officer in the US Army before becoming president in 1849, and he gained much of his fame as a national hero in the Mexican-American War. Sadly, Zachary Taylor died 16 months into his presidency after he contracted acute gastroenteritis from a contaminated meal. While some theories claim he was poisoned, it’s believed that a combination of tainted food and crude medical procedures employed by his doctors ultimately resulted in his early death.
Zachary Taylor was born in Barboursville, Virginia at the Montebello estate. Unfortunately, the location is now on private property, and it’s not open to the public. However, historians and tourists can still drive to the spot and see a historic marker on the side of the road that honors the former President. As an added bonus, there are ruins of a historic mansion designed and built by Thomas Jefferson about 2 miles from this marker. Check out the Barboursville Ruins on your way to or from the Montebello site for a hidden gem related to Virginia presidents!
More Information: Zachary Taylor’s Montebello address
28th President of the USA (1913 – 1921)Woodrow Wilson is the most recent of the Virginia presidents, and he’s also the only one on this list to hold the office in the 1900s. Born in the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Wilson attended University of Virginia Law School before going on to become president of Princeton University. His political rise began when he was elected Governor of New Jersey, a position he used to propel himself into becoming the 28th President of the United States. Wilson was the leader of our nation during World War I, and he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for his role in establishing the League of Nations. In his second term as president, Woodrow Wilson suffered a severe stroke, and the severity of his illness was actually hidden from the public by his wife Edith. Interestingly, at the time there were no constitutional guidelines for how to deal with an unwilling transfer of power due to illness or disability, and many historians have debated whether she acted as a mere “steward” of his wishes (which she claimed) or if she made decisions on his behalf as de-facto President of the United States. We may never know the truth, but it’s a fascinating piece of history to consider.
Today, you can visit the Presidential Library and Museum for Woodrow Wilson in Staunton, Virginia to learn more about the former president. The building offers tours and provides documents and artifacts to help educate visitors on Wilson’s life and time in office.
More Information: Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum
Map of Houses and Monuments for Virginia Presidents
If you’re planning to visit these locations on your own, be sure to check out the map we created below. We pinpointed all the sites we mention in this article, and we hope it can be useful for you on your own day trips.
This video from Virginia.org provides an additional look at the houses and locations we mention here. Take a look and see if it inspires your own Virginia Presidents adventure!
Visit the Houses of Virginia-born US Presidents!
The Commonwealth of Virginia is home to so much of the USA’s history, from the earliest days of the English Colonies all the way to modern times. The historic houses of Virginia-born presidents are great spots to visit if you’re hoping to learn more about some of the country’s most transformational times and the people who led them. Tour the homes and step back in time to see what life was like for these historical figures before they were leaders of the country; it may make you wonder who the next president from Virginia might be!
More Information: WhiteHouse.gov/presidents
We always enjoy writing about our home state of Virginia! Here are a few more places we’ve written about.